Alderperson Ed Burke looks down while attending a speech by former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley at the Greater Chicago Food Depository in November 2009.
Alderperson Ed Burke in November 2009 at the Greater Chicago Food Depository Credit: Kate Gardiner, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As my mother used to tell me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Wonderful words of wisdom that she herself rarely practiced, though often preached.

So I was tempted not to write a word about 14th Ward alderperson Ed Burke, who decided not to run for reelection after over 50 god-awful corrupt and racist years in office.

But then I read a newsletter by Shia Kapos for Politico in which she recounted how a line of well-wishers recently waited to shake Burke’s hand at the Irish Fellowship Club’s Christmas luncheon.

And I was like . . .

C’mon, Chicago, looks like you need yet another history lesson.

Not that you will pay attention. Chicago’s great at ignoring its past, which is why we’re even better at repeating our mistakes time after time.

The thing you need to know about Ed Burke above all else is that he just may be the worst alderperson in the history of bad alderpeople. I can’t think of one good thing he’s accomplished for the city as a whole since he took over for his father, who died in office, in 1969.

Far from listing Burke’s achievements, you have to go in the other direction and enumerate the bad things he did. Sort of like his Mount Rushmore of awfulness, starting with . . . 

Chair of the council’s finance committee under Mayor Daley. 

Soon after Daley was elected in 1989, he selected Burke to chair finance. Burke remained in that position for all 22 years of Daley’s tenure.

That means Burke oversaw the flow of billions and billions of public dollars in contracts, TIF deals, and budgets, as they raced their way from mayoral proposal to council approval.

This was a tenure marred by malfeasance of epic proportions including Madoffian TIF scams, and various asset sell-offs, culminating in the parking meter sale, in which the city sold an asset worth an estimated $10 billion for little more than $1 billion.

If Chicago were a meritocracy (in which we’re judged by our performance), Burke would have been bounced from the finance chair sometime in the 1990s.

But Chicago is more like a kleptocracy in which we publicly worship our leaders. And so Burke not only remained in his finance position, but was hailed as a fiduciary wizard for whom we should be eternally grateful.

In reality, being finance committee chair under Daley is not a particularly taxing job—which explains why Burke was able to continue his bustling tax-appeal law practice at the same time. More on that in a bit.

It’s not like Burke had to astutely bend and shape the budget to win the council votes needed for passage. No, under Daley, the alderpeople lined up to vote however the mayor commanded.

I submit to you that pretty much any alderperson could have chaired finance under Daley. In fact, Alderperson Scott Waguespack has handled the job just fine since Mayor Lightfoot took office.

And yet no one in the mainstream Chicago press feels compelled to hail Waguespack as a wizard of budgets. 

Burke also chaired finance under Mayor Rahm, even though candidate Rahm promised to clean up the financial mishaps of the Daley years.

Burke didn’t even endorse candidate Rahm when he first ran for mayor in 2011.

But he was one “enemy” that Rahm rewarded. I suspect that’s largely because Emanuel knew that Burke would be a loyal factotum who would usher through a proposal, no matter how misguided, that popped out of the mayoral brain.

In exchange, all Mayor Rahm had to do was look the other way at whatever chicanery Burke was up to—which he did until the feds raided Burke’s offices in 2019, forcing Rahm to replace him as finance chair.

As Emanuel’s finance chair, Burke championed Mayor Rahm’s first budget in which, among other crimes against humanity, they closed mental health clinics in low-income, high-crime communities.

Under Daley and Emanuel, Burke played the role of what my old colleague Mick Dumke calls “the closer.” After the never-in-doubt majority of aldermanic votes was rounded up, Burke would stand before the council and bloviate an oration of hot air, filled with quotes lifted from Bartlett’s. I think he was trying to assure us the alderpeople were public servants doing the public good—as opposed to a bunch of pirates robbing from the poor to feed the rich.

For this he was known as the council historian. 

And all the while Burke operated the aforementioned property tax appeal law practice that eventually led to his downfall. The federal indictment accuses him of shaking down business from developers or property owners, who then secured his support for whatever they needed from the city.

One of his tax-appeal clients was Donald Trump, on whose behalf Burke won over $1 million worth of property tax cuts over the years. Thank you, Tim Novak, for doing the deep dive on the Burke/Trump connection.

By lowering Donald Trump’s property tax bill, Burke, of course, raised yours. As I prepare to pay another outrageously high property tax bill, I’d say his work on behalf of Trump, and countless other downtown property owners, would qualify as his greatest offense, except . . .

Back in the 1980s, Burke and Alderperson Edward Vrdolyak tag teamed to organize most of the council’s white alderpeople into a bloc that opposed anything Mayor Washington tried to do.

The point was to sabotage the city’s government so that the electorate would vote Mayor Washington out of office. 

They just couldn’t stand the fact that a powerful and independent-minded Black man was calling the shots. It doesn’t get much more racist than that.

I urge everyone, especially millennials and Zs who didn’t live through those days, to watch Joe Winston’s documentary, Punch 9 for Harold Washington. It tells the Council Wars story in a compelling fashion.

Just in case anyone still wants to rewrite Chicago history or pretend it never happened.


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